Obama, Power Extol American Leadership and Values. Refugees Need Action.

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.

In his final State of the Union address President Obama focused on the importance of American leadership, both what it has accomplished and where it must improve. “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world don’t look to Beijing or Moscow to lead–they call us,” he said. According to the President, American leadership in the 21st century is about “rallying the world behind causes that are right.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power echoed Obama’s call at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Power said that the world “constantly looks to the United States to lead” and “many believe little will happen if the United States does not act.” The ambassador declared that the United States’ “greatest strength is in our values” and that inflammatory political rhetoric will “compromise and undermine those values.”

Power specifically addressed an issue notably absent from Obama’s speech–refugee resettlement. She reminded the crowd of the atrocities taking place in Syria, including gassings, barrel bombs, and violent extremists selling women in the street. She disparaged the idea that some politicians could “call to turn away people fleeing these horrors.” Power pressed that those who say “keeping ‘others’ out is the only way to keep us secure misunderstand who we are and what makes us strong. Compromising our core values never makes the U.S. safer.”

Several Iraqi, Syrian, and Pakistani refugee families attended the event, and Power told their tragic stories of danger and escape, and how they eventually found safety and freedom in the United States. She asked the audience, “Does anyone of us want to live in a country where we turn away a family like this?” To widespread applause, she addressed the families: “America welcomes you, our families welcome your families… These families are part of the fabric of American life.”

America needs leadership that embodies our core values. Obama and Power’s attention to that fact is a welcomed call for progress. Yet the administration’s eloquent rhetoric must do more than counterbalance the harmful speech against refugees. The administration must also act.

Unfortunately, Obama’s actions towards refugees, thus far, have not embodied the American leadership he and Ambassador Power extolled. Despite facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the United States has only agreed to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees–a mere fraction of the more than four million Syrian refugees forced to flee the horrors in their home countries. And Congress is considering legislation, the so-called SAFE Act, which would make it nearly impossible for the administration to even reach this modest goal.

The United States has historically been the undisputed leader in resettling refugees in times of global crisis. Right now it’s falling short. If Obama and Power’s call for American leadership is to be realized in the global refugee crisis, the United States must welcome significantly more Syrian refugees.

Another refugee crisis deserves U.S. attention at home. As Obama and Power spoke in support of American ideals and leadership, thousands of families across the country remain terrified of deportation raids targeting Central American families fleeing violence.

When pressed, Power agreed that all Central American migrants should have a meaningful opportunity to have their case heard and receive protection if they are refugees. But she did not address how her call for sympathy for families fleeing violence in the Middle East could be squared with the administration’s recent actions toward Central American families.

Earlier this week over 100 House Democrats condemned the administration’s move to deport refugee mothers and children from Central America. The lawmakers highlighted that these actions are not in line with American values. “You and your Administration have upheld time-honored American values by offering refuge to those fleeing violence and disorder in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. We commend you for that,” they wrote. “However, these same fundamental American values have not been applied in your Administration’s policies towards Central American refugee mothers and children.”

Near the end of his State of the Union address Obama declared, “Our collective futures depend on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen… to stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody somewhere stood up for us.”

Refugees from Syria to Central America, with nowhere to turn, need us to stand up for them. That means safe, fair, and robust asylum procedures and resettlement commitments. That’s what American ideals in action would look like.


Published on January 15, 2016


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